How many women were committed involuntarily to insane asylums by their husbands during the early 1900s?

I have recently learned that women who were asserting themselves in their marriages were often committed involuntarily to insane asylums during the late 1800s through the early 1900s.  A newspaper account presented the details of a woman who was confined many years against her will at a private asylum. Eventually she was able to gain her release through the support of a sympathetic attorney.  Another newspaper account reported the sad case of a woman who threw herself in front of a train days before she was supposed to be entered into the same asylum. Far more women than men were institutionalized in these asylums.  The disproportionality of women institutionalized during that era clearly was a reflection of women's lack of rights and their husbands finding the wives' challenging behaviors reason enough to have the spouses involuntarily committed to these institutions.  I would like to find statistics that might shed light on the numbers of women who suffered this plight.

  • Dear Mark Jewell,

    Thank you for posting your request on History Hub!

    Because the federal government was in most cases not involved in such processes, records regarding the commitment of persons to institutions would primarily be held at the state and local level. In cases of privately operated asylums, they may also be in the custody of those institutions or their successors. You may wish to begin your research by identifying specific institutions, states, or localities and consulting with the relevant archives and health departments there.


    One area that the National Archives does have more records for is Washington, DC. The National Archives has Records of St. Elizabeth's Hospital (Record Group 418) as well some court records for the DC Courts in Records Group 21. Additionally, you may be able to use Census Records to find lists of inmates in specific institutions throughout the nation during census years. For more information about these non-digitized records, please contact the National Archives in Washington, DC - Textual Reference (RR1R) at


    You may experience a delay in receiving an initial acknowledgment as well as a substantive response to your reference request. We apologize for this inconvenience and appreciate your understanding and patience.


    The Census Bureau may be able to provide you with statistical information about inmates in institutions, if such information was ever compiled in their reports.


    Also, organizations which specialize in medical matters such as the National Library of Medicine, the American Psychiatric Association, or the medical departments of your local universities may be able to provide you with information about any studies that have been done on this topic.


    We hope this is helpful. Best of luck with your research!

  • Thanks, Jason, for this helpful response to my inquiry.  The suggestions that you have provided should yield some useful information that I will post once I receive replies from the various resources you have provided.  In the meanwhile, I hope that others will also respond to our first two comments.

  • Through genealogy research, I’ve found two female relatives who had spent time as inmates in the Oregon State Insane Asylum in Salem. The first, an unmarried woman, occupation dressmaker, was listed at ages 40 and 50 in the 1900 and 1910 Federal Censuses. I have a letter which she wrote later to her brother, pleading with him to let her come live with him. He did.

    One her nieces (not her brother’s child, but a daughter of one of her sisters) later was listed in censuses as an inmate in the same asylum in 1935, 1940 and 1950. She was married, in her 50s and 60s, with 6 children.

    I’ve wondered why they ended up in there, especially the single aunt, but no family stories have been passed down about the circumstances. Although I’ve found interesting articles online about the Oregon State Insane Asylum, I haven’t checked about seeing the institution records, if they still exist.

    Two for your statistics, but not much background.

  • I am finally understanding the significance of one of my uncle's threatening my aunt with this statement: "I am going to send you to Western State."  Western State Hospital was near their home.  And now, with my understanding of involuntary commitments by husbands, I am sure the threat was intended to control my aunt.  It seemed funny hearing it at the time but now it seems utterly deplorable. Given what I know about the conditions of such places, I have a deeper appreciation for the people, like the actress Frances Farmer, who had to endure such "snake pits."